William Jefferson Clinton's time as President of the United States is running out during this fall of 2000, and his already furious travel pace has escalated to a maddening level. For those of us who cover these waning days of his administration, the question becomes: are we going to survive to see the inauguration of the new president? Which one? Don't ask me...I'm just trying to keep up.
On Saturday, October 14, my alarm went off at 6am. The next time I would lay my head down on a pillow would be at 4am on Tuesday the 16th, in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, and that would be for only an hour. In one week we raced from fund-raisers in Denver and Seattle; to a hastily called Middle East peace conference; then back to the services held for those who died aboard the U.S.S. Cole, in Norfolk; then on to more campaigning and fund raising in St. Louis, Boston, and Indianapolis.
As deadly rioting continued on the West Bank of Israel, we all knew that the president was desperately trying to put together a meeting between Prime Minister Barak and PLO Leader Yassar Arafat. A weekend trip to the Midwest and West Coast was canceled, then put back on the schedule as Clinton awaited word from the two leaders. It was 10pm PST when my pager went off at a rally in Seattle. The message read "BAGGAGE CALL AT ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE AT 5AM." Hey! We were on the other side of the country! So, it was the red-eye back to Washington, just in time to get on the plane to Egypt.
By Sunday night (Monday morning?) we were checking into the swank resort hotel at Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. You note I say "checking in," because that was all we did. I picked up a key to a room that I would see, at 4am, for a total of one hour on Tuesday morning.
Among the most frustrating events in the photographic world to cover is a peace conference, especially a Middle East one. They are a major test of endurance, with little to show for it. A White House pool photographer ends up sitting in some small room--in this case with only a few straight-backed chairs in an under-construction condo--for virtually a round-the-clock vigil. Even the food was no consolation, it amounted to a cold pizza, featuring indiscernible toppings. One of the wire photographers had brought along a few DVDs, which he could play on his laptop. So we watched Austin Powers twice. By the early morning hours, most of us were sprawled across the stone floor. At 3:45am, the president finally motorcaded back to the hotel. We were then given an hour and a half to take a nap (hardly made sense), and shower.
By dawn, we were back in our holding room. At this point, the pool was beginning to get a bit weird. Someone got the clever idea to take a picture of the photo pool, IN the empty swimming pool. Then, as the sun began to climb in the sky, we took turns photographing each other sitting on the wall in front of our condo.
Finally, about noon, we got word the conference was coming to an end. Well, more precisely, the Egyptian photographers got the word. Largely due to linguistic difficulties, the Egyptian press office people couldn't make our White House handlers understand that there was about to be a press statement by the leaders. Despite the entreaties of the Egyptian officials that we were now free to enter the conference site, our group stood riveted to our piece of concrete, while the local photographers ran around us into the hall where the leaders were about to emerge. Eventually, we got the idea, and wended our way to the back of a huge room, dominated by a thirty-foot-long table, at which the three leaders sat, ten feet apart. Now, this type of seating plan hardly makes for an intimate photograph. But, that is what we got before having to battle our way back out of the room, as police tried to keep us inside until the principals departed. Our tiny White House press officer, Christine Anderson, threw herself into the doorway, acting like a 49ers' line backer, and pulled us one by one out of the melee so we could catch the motorcade.
Now, Air Force One soared westward across the Atlantic, carrying us to the memorial services in Norfolk, being held the next morning. From there it was on to St. Louis to pick up the fund-raising appearances that had started on Saturday. By nightfall, we were landing in Boston, to get onto a helicopter flying to Lowell, Massachusetts; then back to Boston for a second fund-raiser of the night; then onto Air Force One, again, to fly to Indianapolis; getting to our hotel room at--what else--4am. Pool call was at 8am to motorcade to the State Fair grounds for yet another fund-raiser.
Later that afternoon, we staggered off the plane back at Andrews Air Force Base-- total flying time for the week was 52 hours. Oh, and by the way, I think my film total for the week was 12 rolls, six of which were taken at the memorial services in Norfolk. Number of pictures used by Time--zero.
Two weeks later, we would once again be racing the sun westward, this time to Hawaii (for an hour), Brunei, which is about as far away from the U.S. as you can get, and then on to Vietnam.
Did I tell you, I think Bill Clinton is trying to kill me?
I think at this point, I should clear up a few things about press trips with the president. Most people think the U.S. government pays for our air travel. Wrong, the cost of the charter that accompanies the president is equally shared by each member traveling on the plane. That includes Air Force One as well--in other words, when I travel on Air Force One, I'm paying my prorated cost of the press charter. The irony is, on Air Force One I don't have the first class meals and fine wines which I'm still paying for. Another difference is that although the Air Force One seats are comfortable, business class, they don't match the fully reclining first class seats, or for that matter, the three and four seats abreast that you can stretch out on in the press plane. Also, on an overseas trip, the press plane generally leaves at least 12 hours prior to Air Force One's departure, which allows its passengers to get a night's rest before the president arrives.
The press aboard Air Force One usually consists of two wire service reporters, three wire service photographers, a print newspaper reporter, a magazine reporter, a two-man network crew, a TV correspondent, and a magazine photographer. The magazine photographer seat is rotated on a daily basis. For the trip to the Far East, it was my turn to be the "mag pooler." Actually, I would have been on the press plane except that due to meetings with Arafat and Barak, President Clinton delayed his departure by a day.
Which is why I happened to arrive in Hawaii, just in time to pass the rest of the press corps headed for the airport, all tanned and relaxed, having attended a luau the night before, followed by a precious full night's sleep. We stopped too, of course, for about 45 minutes, while Air Force One was refueled, then off we went on the 14-hour flight to Brunei where the annual APEC (Asian Pacific Economic) summit was being held. It's attended primarily by oil-producing nations. These summits were President Clinton's idea, but most that can be said for them photo-op-wise is that we're treated to rather unusual shots of the leaders in wild and colorful theme-shirts that the host country's PR people provide for them as souvenirs. Other than this, these gatherings are like watching grass grow, or not-watching grass grow - most of the meetings are closed to the press. We did get to spend a lot of time standing in 100 degree heat, and 100 percent humidity, waiting for the group photo - fourteen guys standing in a line with weird shirts (they looked like some small nation's Olympic team).
Because it's the last days of Clinton's administration, virtually no one was bothering to photograph him, instead they spent most of their time chasing down the presidents of the Philippines, Peru, and Japan, all of whom were uncertain whether their respective countries were going to let them back in (especially with those shirts!). As it turned out, the fellow from Peru never did go home, he sought asylum in Japan.
But of course, the real purpose of the trip was so Clinton could be the first U.S. President to visit Vietnam since the war ended. The Vietnamese generally regarded the visit as though he were some dotty uncle come to call, to whom they had to be nice. That's how the government of Vietnam felt, and they tried to keep Clinton's schedule a secret from the public, but the arrival got out. When we drove into Hanoi, in the early morning hours, thousands upon thousands of ordinary citizens were crowded together on the sidewalks excitedly waving to the president's motorcade.
For those of us who covered the war, David Hume Kennerly, Newsweek, Chick Harrity, U.S.News & World Report, Hank Brown, CBS, and myself, it was very much a personal and emotional pilgrimage. That was certainly how our publications looked at it, especially in light of the fact that the U.S. elections had come to a screeching halt by decisions being made in Florida courtrooms. Nevertheless, we all gave it our best shot to get some pictures into our magazines. This was the first time I had been able to use a digital camera on a TIME assignment (they desperately hope this whole technology will go away before some of their picture editors lose their jobs, because now the photographers can actually pick and send their photos to the editors). Both Chick and David were also touting the digitals, and we all discovered (a) it was really cool to see the little color pictures come up right away on the LCD on the back of the camera, and (b) It was like being back in the wire services again, with all the control on our end.
Over the years, I had gotten very spoiled by TIME couriers showing up in the middle of nowhere, taking my film, and getting it to New York in time for the edition. No muss, no fuss. Now, here I was back editing and transmitting pictures from the other side of the world. The main difference - when I was sending pictures from Vietnam 30 years ago, it took me about nine minutes per picture (assuming the frequencies were clear). Now, it was taking me about an hour per high resolution picture. Lines in Brunei were simply impossible to transmit over. In Hanoi, from the hotel, every 15 minutes or so, a tone would be placed on the line by the telecommunications ministry, and you would have to start all over again. I transmitted a total of ten pictures to New York, all of which looked great on their end, but it took me nearly 15 hours and most of the night to do it. More lost sleep.
We had a lot of fun in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, buying Vietnam War era North Vietnamese Army caps and posing in the center of Hanoi. The Secret Service were able to impress their North Vietnamese counterparts with how the press should be handled in a crowd. At one point, as I was being knocked off the sidewalk by an agent - who had a look in his eyes I've only seen once before in a Sam Remi movie--the Vietnamese cops were giggling in admiration.
I must say, it was thrilling to see the crowds clap and push, trying to shake Clinton's hand. But at the end, there was one moment that will remain with me always. It came near midnight at Hanoi airport, the conclusion of the president's visit. Clinton, the U.S. ambassador, and other officials formed a small reviewing line, and stood as a United States military honor guard, in near silence, draped an American flags over three coffins. Then one by one, with only the sound of their shoes echoing in the night air, carried the bodies of the three Americans killed in the war, to a waiting C141 transport, for their final trip home. A lot of things came to closure at that moment.
"The Vietnam War was what we had instead of happy childhoods." Michael Herr